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Lawmakers in January 2008 chose Litokwa Tomeing as the new president, rejecting incumbent Kessai Note’s bid for a third term. The results of the November 2007 parliamentary elections had not become clear until early January because discrepancies in the original vote tallies had triggered recounts.
The atolls and islands that make up the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) were claimed by Germany in 1885 and occupied by Japan during World War I. U.S. forces took control during World War II, and the RMI was placed under U.S. trusteeship in 1947. The country gained independence in 1986, but one-fifth of its citizens live in the United States or U.S. territories, and the economy is heavily dependent on U.S. rent and assistance.
The RMI maintains close relations with the United States under a Compact of Free Association that first came into force in 1986. The pact allows the United States to maintain military facilities in the RMI in exchange for defense guarantees and development assistance. An amended compact that took effect in 2004 will run through 2023, promising annual U.S. transfers of $57 million over the first 10 years and $62 million a year for the next 10 years. The amended compact contains funding and accountability requirements that were absent in the original. RMI citizens also retain visa-free access to the United States to live, work, study, and seek medical services.
The 2004 compact extended use of the Kwajalein missile-testing range—the primary U.S. testing ground for long-range nuclear missiles and missile-defense systems since 1964—through 2066. Landowners on the atoll have yet to agree to this portion of the compact. They want $19 million in annual rent, $4 million more than the U.S. was offering. The two countries also have to agree on compensation for victims of nuclear weapons tests on the Bikini and Enewetak atolls in the mid-20th century. Bikini remains uninhabitable, and Enewetak is partly contaminated. A $150 million Nuclear Claims Fund provides compensation for past, present, and future RMI claimants; this sum has proven inadequate, however, as the Nuclear Claims Tribunal set up under the original compact has awarded some $1.5 billion in personal injury and property damages. President Litokwa Tomeing sought to bridge the demands of the claimants with the U.S. position with a December 2008 proposal that $1.2 million in U.S. grants be awarded annually beginning in 2009 as interim funds to pay the personal injury awards; the United States, however, rejected this proposal.
Kessai Note became the first commoner to win the presidency in 2000, after his United Democratic Party (UDP) won the 1999 legislative elections. He won a second term after another UDP victory in 2003. In the November 2007 legislative polls, the voting was poorly managed. Polling stations opened late in the capital, some in the outer islands ran out of ballots, and overseas voters had a short window to request and return ballots. International monitors reported irregularities, including voters being told to put their names on ballot envelopes in clear violation of voting rules. Vote counting and recounts continued for weeks after the elections, and by the end of 2007, up to 75 percent of overseas votes had been declared invalid.
With the final results in January 2008 showing no clear majority for any single party, 18 of the 33 parliament members chose former speaker and traditional chief Litokwa Tomeing of the Aelon Kein Ad (Our Islands) party as the new president. Tomeing pledged transparency and good governance, and assured Taiwan of continued diplomatic ties. He also promised renegotiation of the amended compact with the United States to obtain higher rents, more development assistance, and full compensation for those affected by weapons tests. Tomeing defeated a no-confidence vote against his presidency in October.
The RMI is an electoral democracy. The president is chosen for a four-year term by the unicameral House of Representatives (Nitijela), from among its members. The chamber’s 33 members are directly elected to four-year terms. An advisory body, the Council of Chiefs (Iroij), consists of 12 traditional leaders who are consulted on customary law. The two main political parties are Aelon Kein Ad and the UDP.
Corruption is a considerable problem. There has reportedly been little progress on reform and transparency improvements, although the government identified the latter as a priority in its Vision 2018 national development strategy, a 15-year development strategy launched in 2001. The country was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press, although journalists occasionally practice self-censorship on sensitive political issues. A privately owned newspaper, the Marshall Islands Journal, publishes articles in English and Marshallese. The government’s Marshall Islands Gazette contains official news but avoids political coverage. Broadcast outlets include a government radio station, a church-owned radio station, and in some areas, U.S. armed forces radio and television. Cable television also offers foreign news, entertainment, and occasional reports on local events. The government does not restrict internet access, but penetration rates are low due to cost and technical difficulties.
Freedom of religion and academic freedom are respected in practice. Four-year college education is rare; the College of the Marshall Islands offers two-year professional training courses. The quality of secondary education remains a serious concern, as most high school graduates have only elementary-level math proficiency, and less than half have elementary-level English proficiency.
Citizen groups operate freely in the country. Many are sponsored by or affiliated with church organizations and provide social services. The government broadly interprets constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and association to cover trade unions. There is no formal right to strike or to engage in collective bargaining, but neither activity is prohibited.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The government raised judges’ salaries in recent years to attract and retain more qualified jurists. Nearly all judges and attorneys are recruited from overseas. Police brutality does not appear to be a problem. Detention centers and prisons meet minimum international standards.
Social and economic discrimination against women is widespread despite the RMI’s tradition of matrilineal inheritance in tribal rank and personal property. Domestic violence against women is often alcohol related. Each year since 2000, nearly one-fifth of all babies were born to teenage mothers. Infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are reportedly high among adolescents. Currently, only one woman sits in the parliament.